* Meat inspector furloughs may be non-consecutive days
* USDA seeks ways to minimize impact on industry, consumer
* Meat plants must close if no US inspectors on hand
* No word on how furloughs might affect AMS division
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Feb 26 U.S. meat packers and
processors face short-term shutdowns because of impending
federal budget cuts but the administration will try to minimize
the impact on the industry and consumers, the Agriculture
Department said on Tuesday.
The automatic cuts, also called sequestration, are due to
take effect on Friday because Congress and the White House are
unable to agree on other ways to reduce the federal deficit.
USDA says the cuts would force it to lay off its 8,400 meat
inspectors for 15 days to produce the savings ordered for its
food safety agency.
Early this month, the White House raised the prospect of a
mass layoff, which would shutter the meat industry for two
weeks. Plants cannot operate without USDA inspectors.
A House subcommittee chairman, Texas Republican Michael
Conaway, said on Tuesday that USDA might order furloughs on
non-consecutive days to mitigate their effect and keep plants
"Specific furlough dates for (inspectors) have yet to be
determined but there is no question sequestration will have an
adverse effect on food inspection services," said USDA
spokeswoman Courtney Rowe. "USDA is taking steps to minimize the
impact of the furloughs on consumers, our employees and the meat
Even so, there would be some shutdowns, USDA said, because
there is no way to stretch the workforce to cover all plants
while reducing outlays enough.
The administration estimates some $10 billion in production
would be lost if inspectors were laid off en masse for two
weeks, or their agency's share of cuts. Stores and restaurants
could run short of meat temporarily.
The USDA did not respond to questions about how it would
approach possible furloughs at its Agricultural Marketing
Service (AMS), which among other things generates prices used as
benchmarks for livestock futures at CME Group Inc. The
USDA has not mentioned AMS in its comments about the sequester.
Conaway said the administration has not replied in writing
to his request for information about meat inspections and the
White House budget office "owes us an explanation." The budget
office was the first to raise the prospect of a furlough of all
8,400 inspectors and a resultant meat industry shutdown.
Although the spending cuts are due to take effect on Friday,
it could be weeks or months before the meat industry is directly
affected. Meat inspectors are guaranteed at least 30 days'
notice of a furlough.
"This is a direct prescription from Congress to reduce every
line item," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week.
Up to one-third of the USDA's 100,000 employees may be
affected by furloughs. The USDA says the cuts would deny food
aid to 600,000 pregnant women, new mothers and infants and also
force closure of hundreds of Forest Service campgrounds, picnic
areas and visitors' centers during the spring and summer.